Marc Weingarten's The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution is a straightforward history of the last period in journalism history worth calling "new."
The inevitable heir to long-form profiles and articles in such publications as The New Yorker, New Journalism sprang from a generation of writers (including Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Michael Herr) who found supportive editors (such as Clay Felker, Harold Hayes, and Jann Wenner) with daring publications (New York, Esquire, and Rolling Stone). The talent, the creativity, and the drive collided to change American journalism forever.
With a fan's enthusiasm, a researcher's depth, and a writer's style, Weingarten tells the story behind all those marvelous stories. And then he answered a few questions for mediabistro.
Mediabistro: How did you go about your research? There's so much material to draw from about these subjects—how were you able to parse it?
Weingarten: Research was a tough slog. It took almost two years to get everything. And yes, it's easy to get lost in a rabbit hole with this subject. My intention was to create a readable narrative, and not get bogged down in [the] completism of listing every New Journalist, every piece, every book, etc. So I narrowed it down to a handful of writers, and three main editors—Clay Felker, Harold Hayes and Jann Wenner. Fortunately, Hayes, Wenner and Felker had a hand in so many important pieces that I could use their stories as a throughline, more or less, throughout the book. You have to parse it, otherwise it becomes an amorphous blob of information, in my view.
Mediabistro: Of the subjects you spoke to personally, with whom did you have the best interview experience? Since you were asking about the significant span of their careers, how did you budget your time (and theirs) to get to what you really wanted to know?
Weingarten: Everyone was cooperative. Tom Wolfe invited me into his apartment and then endured many phone call follow-ups, Gay Talese amply offered his time. By far the most memorable experience was the two nights I spent in Woody Creek with Hunter Thompson. I just had a wonderful time with him. I think he enjoyed reliving his salad days for a captive audience. His wife Anita was great, as well—she kept Hunter on point if he drifted too far afield. As far as budgeting my time, I didn't! You always find that you have to grab something that you didn't ask initially and so there's constant follow-up. It's just the nature of the beast.
Mediabistro: Your subjects include Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, two flamboyant writers. Stylistically, how did you determine your approach to their material? Did it make more sense to write the book as a straight history?
Weingarten: It was always my intention to celebrate these writers in the best way I knew how, which was NOT to try and emulate their styles—an impossible task, unless you want to sound like a complete dork. What's so interesting about Wolfe and Thompson is that they are in many ways diametric opposites, politically, culturally, and otherwise. What bound them together as friends was the feeling that they were fighting the good fight for venturesome journalism.
Mediabistro: How influential were editors in bringing New Journalism to the forefront? What was it about the alchemy of these editors paired with these writers in creating a whole new form?
Weingarten: I think the editors are huge. Hayes, Felker, and Wenner gave these writers their heads to let them do their thing, but they also had a vision of how this kind of writing could enliven journalism, make it new. Conversely, writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese had tremendous respect for these editors—they wanted to do good work for them. I consider the key editors that I discuss in my book to be the Daryl Zanucks and the David Selznicks of the genre.
Mediabistro: What's the favorite anecdote that you came across in your research? And of all the great old stories you got to read for your research, what was your favorite article by any of the authors you wrote about?
Weingarten: It's hard to choose, on both fronts. Hunter certainly has the richest anecdotal archive, it would be hard to single out just one. As far as pieces, I have a number of favorites—Hunter's "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," Talese's "The Loser," Wolfe's piece on custom cars, many others.
Mediabistro: In the epilogue, you mention some of the heirs to New Journalism: Ted Conover, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Jon Krakauer. In terms of publications, what today is breaking the same kind of ground that New York and Esquire did in the 1960s and 1970s?
Weingarten: I like The Believer. I think they are carrying on the New Journalism tradition, although I'm sure they would be loathe to classify it as such. I read an amazing piece in there a few months ago about the editor of a roller coaster magazine making the rounds for his job, and it reminded me of some of Hunter's more unusual picaresques.
Mediabistro: What do you think the next breakthrough in journalism will look like? Has it happened already, because of the web? Are we stuck in a loop of imitating the talents of Didion, Wolfe, Breslin, and Thompson?
Weingarten: I think the next breakthrough will occur on the web, because there are no limits to what you can do in terms of length or integrating media—any number of things. I don't think we've seen it yet, though. Hopefully, the next great New Journalists will provide us with that same shock of the new that many of us experienced when we read Wolfe, Thompson and the rest for the first time.
Aileen Gallagher as an editor at mediabistro.com
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